Ill say this up front, what you are about to read is the story of utter failure. Failure in basic land nav, basic compass use, and failure to use better judgment. Where do we begin? Obviously the planning!
My first 14er, Mt. Sneffels was painfully easy. The geography was easy to read on the map since there were large bodies of water and distinctive peaks, it wasn’t hard to figure out where you were. If you followed the trail it brought you straight up the mountain and on to the top.
Mt. Wetterhorn on the other hand was completely different. I followed the same planning stages of getting the map, checking out the geography and then setting the idea aside until I had time to climb. I didn't spend as much time on planning for Wetterhorn as I did for Sneffels since the trail on Sneffels was so well defined that I thought Wetterhorn would be the same. Not to mention there were crowds on Sneffels so it was relatively easy to figure out where the heard was going. With the trail map and an outline of the trail in my hand, I deemed myself “ready” for Mt. Wetterhorn.
I had no planned date for Wetterhorn and out of the blue my buddy and I decided we’d leave Grand Junction to camp over night at the trail head of Wetterhorn literally 16 hours before we decided to hike it. It was already a bad plan to jump so quickly without any notice. But in all honesty, it wouldn’t of matter because Sneffels spoiled us in the planning stage. The trigger for this sudden climb was simply because we bought some toys....3 REI tents to be exact!
By 6pm Saturday we were on the road. It wasn’t more than 30 minutes into the 4 hour drive that "adventure" , the key component in bad planning began to rear its ugly head.
With a 1/8th of a tank reading on the gauge, I thought we had enough fuel to make it the next town before I needed to fill up. I was farrrrrr from being right.
The tank gauge on the Ford F350 Turbo diesel reads exponentially! That last 1/8 of the tank (on a massive 32 gallon tank) dropped like a steel brick in a pool. Within 10 miles into the trip, the dial sunk into Empty and the low fuel light turned on…and it stood on.
I had no idea how much fuel was left in the tank since I’ve never ran the tank dry. For what seemed like miles, I drove at a slow 50mph pace with cruise control on. People passed by me thinking “where the hell did this dbag Asian kid learn to drive!!!!” yes I was pushing the stereotype, with reason! The windows were rolled up, the radio was off and so was the AC. I was pushing the hypermileing concept to the max…in a 6 liter turbo diesel. Great job kui!…. I should of pulled over miles ago at that gas station….
I was reluctant to ask Adam to find the nearest gas station on his phone. I was certain that our fate was met already…stranded by the side of the road with an empty gas tank. I was just afraid to face it.
Curiosity peaked since the truck kept on driving. It turns out the GPS said that the nearest gas station was …… drum roll…….15 miles away. That’s about 1 gallon right on the dot. A scary 1 gallon when your tank is in the Empty region. The gauge was already below E. The only way we’d get there was through luck and hope to be honest. Keep the RPMS low, steady at 50mph, cruise control on, pucker my ass cheeks and hope for the best.
There were periods of heavy rainfall where I couldn’t even see more than the few milliseconds that the wiper could clear up the water on my windscreen, and there were periods of intense sun that made the cab feel like a sauna. Again windows up, radio off, A/C off! Need to be aerodynamic!!!!
There were moments when the cruise control would power up a hill burning through precious diesel. These were times when I felt like the engine was bogging down on vapors and I quickly turned off the cruise control and just coasted up the hill, hoping it was just a crest so I can just cruise down and pick up speed again.
Looking up onto the road…literally nothing in sight.
Luckily, the hand of god delivered a gas station that was unmapped about 4 miles sooner of where we needed to be. And thank god it was where it was because I didn’t think we make it past the multiple lights that we needed to reach the gas station. This alone was already enough adventure for me in one day.
The rainfall managed to flood the little dip in this gas station.
With a full tank, we speared on. The weather was nasty the whole drive.
A rainbow from a recent shower on our left and a heavy rainstorm rolling in from our right. An endless onslaught of rain.
It was literally 4 hours of driving through weather likes this. Well into the night.
As day fell, the weather conditions didn’t get any better. We were driving in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps one or two cars passing ever so often. The rain seemed to come and go. Were we really about to camp out in this weather?
We finally made it to the small town next to the trail (Lake City) around 10pm and lo and behold. Not a single restaurant was open past 9. We settled for a bar that barely had a kitchen and ate cold and disgusting pulled pork sandwiches. I guess food is food when you’re hungry right? It wasn’t much of a meal as it was just calories that I needed for the next day.
We drove on a dirt road for the next 15 miles and made it to the lower trail head where we parked our car and started to pitch our tent in the pitch dark.
The moment my eye adjusted, I looked up and saw something that made this trip memorable. The Milky Way band…. This was the first time I’d ever seen it. The sky was littered with millions of star. You could stick your thumb up at the sky and you be able to cover atleast 100 stars under your thumb at arms length. I tried to snap a picture, but I didn’t have a good camera. Even with a 60 sec exposure the aperture of my camera and the sensor just couldn’t make sense of how beautiful the milky way band was. It’s an image that I’ll probably keep for myself. Its been almost 7 years since ive dreamed about seeing the milky way band, and I was too concerned with pitching my tent that I almost missed it.
With the tents ready , I headed off to sleep, of course, I didn’t notice how much of a slope I pitched my tent on and slept in the corner of the tent where I rolled into… just for future reference make sure your are on flat ground before randomly pitching a tent in the middle of no where!
I hardly slept since I would peak out and look up at the milky way band until it was over the mountain. But none the less I did manage a solid 2 hours of sleep.
We headed off on our hike at 430 am and snapped a few photos along the way.
This was the map at the trail head. I probably should of paid more attention to it since it was more detailed then the maps I had on hand.
Out into the distance you could see the nearby matterhorn’s shark fin peak ( slilghtly higher than wetterhorn). Though wetterhorn was still out of sight.
And here is the critical mistake….we crossed this log and never thought twice about where we were heading. The grass was so thick and tall that you couldn’t see that the trail split into two. One crossed the river, the other veered off to the right.
Everything from here onto would be mass confusion and bad judgment calls. We continued on searching for the path and kept looking for the matching signs of the trail and our map. We thought we were much further than we really are and kept circling around. We made it another 2 miles into the woods and were completely lost in relation to where the trail was.
I would later find out that we were suppose to be ontop of the small mountain that the sheep were grazing on. We were nearly 2 miles horiziotally off course.
It was about 8am and a rainstorm began to roll in and we called it quits. Not because we were too tired, but because weather was not in our favor and we had no idea where the trail was. Don’t get me wrong, we were ON a trail. But later, we found out it was a trail made by 5,000 sheep walking in single file. Fucking sheep!
We made it to the tree line and donned our rain gear and had lunch…well what we remembered to bring at least, 1 peanut butter sandwich (hold the jelly) and 2 packets of sardines split between two people.
Probably not the best idea since bears can smell the sardines miles away and come chasing for them.
I pulled out my compass and tried to figure out where we were. But the compass kept pointing north at the sun. I threw it on the floor and walked away and there was no change. I didn't believe the compass one bit. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, or was I not paying attention in earth science??? When I walked 10 minutes away, the compass would point to another position. There was some type of magnetic interference at that point. A radio tower or something that was just messing up my readings. I put away the compass and forgot about it.
When we headed back, we met up with 2 people that were running forward. I was desperate to figure out where we were, so we followed behind them and it was long before they were out of sight. They were booking it!
We made it up to a hill and decided to just follow the compass said was the new north and shot for the general direction. NNW (north-northwest).
When we finnaly made it to the first flat area, I was able to see Wetterhorn, and I finnaly figured out where we were in relation to the trail. It was already 10am and there was absolutely no way we could make it to the summit. The weather was NOT on our side, and we were pushing 10 miles with all the back and forward running around we did while looking for the trail. My legs were tired, we had no more water and food, and there was atleast another 2 hours of even getting to the top, which puts us right into the afternoon showers that the 14ers are known for.
The hike was still very memorable. I should have had my compass out the entire time and kept my bearing straight and followed the map instead of just following trails. There were multiple trails in the area and it just completely fooled me into going the wrong way.
I was pretty upset from not making it to the top. Not because of weather, or physical ability or fear. It was because of bad land nav. No one to blame but myself.
Lastly, this is the map I made when I got home that day. The pink is the trail, and the red was our path. It doenst show it but there was lots of little loops that we made and turned the 7 mile round trip to 10+ miles. Not more than 3 seconds after we had the car in sight, and i had to make a dash for the door since there were howling 30mph winds and lighting. I'm sure glad we didnt try and push for the summit.
Lesson learned, follow the map with a compass and a pace counter to make sure you are where you need to be. And trust your instincts when the trail feels off.
Wetterhorn, perhaps sometime in the future I will summit you. Or perhaps not, I wont be returning here anytime soon. Next is up is Snowmass Mountain.